If I were to ask you to play a word association game with “Christmas”, you probably wouldn’t immediately think of “suffering and fear”. But Christmas is a time of reflection and when you’ve had a year like ours, it turns out to be helpful to look at these uncomfortable subjects in light of the message of Advent.
Beyond our own family, the Christmas season is known to be a time of trouble for many people. Suicide rates are higher around the holidays as loneliness, depression and the reminder of lost loved ones is particularly acute. I’ve spent some time reflecting on the fear that is associated with suffering and how it can change us. I’d like to start by thinking directly about suffering and fear in their own right, and then move to consider the implications and change that comes through the familiar story of the coming 0f Christ.
Read 1 Peter 5:6-11
6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
8 Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
In his remarkable book, The End of Memory, philosopher and theologian Miroslav Volf recounts his own memories of being tortured at the hands of authorities in his former home country Yugoslavia. Volf reflects that the failure to remember things correctly and carefully allows us to create false narratives. These narratives tend to be used to justify our own anger and isolation that follow. I think that Volf is right and that to take this a step further, it is important to pay attention to how we are changed by the fear both of those moments and time periods of suffering, as well as in the days that stretch out afterward.
I have 2 specific questions I’ve been asking myself about this type of difficulty. First, what am I actually afraid of in those moments? By that I mean, what is underneath the fear, the panic, the anxiety? Second, What will that fear do to me? What toll will the fear take in my life, how will it shape me, what will it do to me? We all get calls that unleash these fears over the course of a lifetime.
Mine came in June. Our second eldest son, Josiah, had been in a horrible accident. You can read more about the details at his Caring Bridge site here.
For the sake of our time here, let me say that in God’s gracious providence Josiah is doing well. He sustained a variety of injuries, the worst of which was a traumatic brain injury from which he is still recovering, but he is doing well. Far better than our worst fears. We have been connected to many others’ similar experiences through this and deeply resonate with that “one call that can change your life”.
There are many different things that create fear, but what we all share, is that we suffer, and we dread. And over a lifetime, we will experience suffering that causes fear either first hand or in those we know and love. It’s really inescapable. These fears (either at hand or at bay) capture us. We are afraid of being exposed. We dread the loss of life of friends and family. We are terrified to be found to be weak, or incompetent. These anxieties have the power to shape and control us. They change us.
Dr. Brene Brown, whom you may recognize from her incredible work on shame, resilience, fear, and empathy, has observed much in her research about this. In her book, Daring Greatly, she explains that her research has shown that our creation of self-protection and coping mechanisms actually cuts us off from the world. Here are some of the categories she explores:
Foreboding Joy/ Anticipating disaster: looking for disaster anytime things seem to be ok.
Perfectionism: acting like if we can just control every last minute, hair, piece of dirt, or dollar, we can keep brokenness outside our shield.
Numbing: going through life not allowing anything to touch us emotionally. Never being too happy or to sadly, not allowing life’s ups and downs to be made much in our lives. Never allowing emotional risk.
Shadow Comforts: using things that are good in and of themselves, not for their goodness or beauty, but to cast a pall over our lives and insulate us from feeling too much or engaging too much. Sex, alcohol, shopping, etc. . .
Cynicism: When I read Dr. Brown’s explanation of how our fears can move us to become cynics, I immediately thought of the story of Ruth. If you remember, the story starts with Naomi, who eventually suffers through famine, being a refugee in a foreign land, the loss of her husband and both sons. She changes her name to “Mara” meaning bitter. Nothing good will come again.
These self-protections are tools that in effect make our worlds small. They make us small and emotionally shut out. I see evidence of all of these things in my life. I’m at risk of allowing my own fears, my own suffering, to do this to me. I think we all are. What I have been wrestling with is this: what is underneath those coping mechanisms? My conclusion is that there are two fundamental fears that linger at the heart of all of this:
That I am alone.
That I am not enough.
The fear and shame associated with suffering is suffocating. It involves grief, distress, and agony. The research suggests that the pain associated with mental and emotional anguish is literally no less real than physical pain. To suddenly lose a loved one is like having your arm ripped off. It contorts you. It crushes you. You are not sure you can get up. And you feel alone, so desperately alone. Like someone left broken on the side of the road.
But in this Season of Advent, we are reminded that someone is coming, someone that has not left us alone.
In Matthew 1:18-23 we are given three promises. First, that Jesus is God. Immanuel means “God with us”. When my greatest fear is being found weak, impotent and just not enough, here comes word that the God of the universe has entered into the place we are. Jesus came as deity himself, the one who is all-powerful the one who is inherently “all” and therefore brings with him the “enoughness” that we long for.
Second, that Jesus is human. Importantly, this God who enters our world comes not as something mystical and Other, but through the bloody and painful experience of the birth canal, and into the dirt. Jesus has been made like us in every way. The scripture says that he became vulnerable and ordinary; he lost his power and beauty. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him. . . that we should desire him.” (Is 53:2) When we think to ourselves, “I cannot get out of my head, I am alone, no one knows this pain, this agony, this fear, this paralysis,” the scripture says look to him who at the end said to his heavenly father “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus has in fact been there. In every way, he chose to suffer the indignity and the pain of becoming like us. He has known the fear, suffering and pain that is ours. It has become His too.
Third, that this Jesus is with us. The Christian message of Advent is of great importance to our rescue from fear and from our own forged coping mechanisms. We do live in a world of severe anxiety. We do live in a world in which we have an adversary who periodically is able to sink his claws or his teeth into us. Our flesh is weak and our suffering is real. But the Advent reminds us that we are not alone. Additionally, it calls us onward to see and meet the needs of those around us also suffering.
Author Diane Langberg writes: “I find that I am not naturally moved by the evil, sin, and suffering of this world to do justice until it infringes on my world, my comfort, and my relationships. The evil, sin and suffering that do not touch my world, I work hard to keep at a distance. It is disturbing, messy and inconvenient. . . The dungeons are not just out there, they exist all over the world and in our neighborhoods.”
But, they are also in here, in our hearts. Our favoritism, discrimination, prejudice, harsh judgments, our choices to be blind and deaf and our self-protections all create these dungeons. Our open-hearted encounter with suffering and fear, helps us understand that the lives of the marginalized, those who suffer greatly, matter. Whether that’s us, our loved ones, or those at greatest risk in the world around us. It matters, it matters to Jesus. Our suffering and our fear, help us to become humble, grateful recipients of the love of God. They also open us to become agents of His kingdom, extending this grace, love and comfort to those around us. In the light of Advent, they give us a proper view of our own limitations and our need for Christ. They position us to long for and receive what Peter promises. Look at this as a benediction, a promise of blessing:
10 And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. 11 To him be the power forever and ever.